The year 1994 was a memorable one for the family — for negative reasons that ultimately catalyzed a great catechesis.
It began with the formal celebration by the United Nations General Assembly of the “International Year of the Family” under the theme, “Family: Resources and Responsibilities in a Changing World” with the motto: “Building the Smallest Democracy at the Heart of Society.”
The celebrations included various events to “express the diversity of individual preferences and societal conditions” in families and also set the table for the infamous International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo that brought together U.N. officials, first lady Hillary Clinton, radical environmentalists, feminists and abortion and population-control advocates to impose their vision of the culture of death on the world under the guise of reproductive rights, gender equity and sustainable population. The Vatican led the heroic and winning fight at the Cairo conference. But Pope St. John Paul II was not done. He welcomed the U.N. year, but he also shrewdly understood the opportunity that the occasion presented to offer the world a clearer vision of the authentic family as the foundation for civilization. Not by accident, then, 1994 also marked the birth of the World Meeting of Families that will be held for the ninth time this year in Dublin Aug. 21-26 with the theme “The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World” (see story).
Given the controversy surrounding certain issues and themes taking place at the upcoming World Meeting of Families, the origins of the World Meeting are especially worth recalling.
The Vision of John Paul II
One of the greatest legacies of St. John Paul II was his massive body of teachings on marriage, sexuality and the family. This was the pope who gave the Church the theology of the body and the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio on family life.
Foreseeing the potential problems with the United Nations’ “International Year of the Family,” John Paul declared at the end of 1993 a special “Year of the Family for the Church” and issued a letter for families in early 1994. In April of that year, he beatified the heroic doctor Gianna Beretta Molla (she was canonized in 2004), who had given her life in 1962 to ensure the safe birth of her child and was revered as a role model for the family. And then John Paul instructed the Pontifical Council for the Family (now part of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life) to establish an international gathering of families, what is now the World Meeting of Families.
The meeting was intended to bring families from all over the world together for prayer and catechesis, to foster witnesses to the truth of family life and to show the world that only in the authentic family is there hope for the future.
A month after the Cairo conference, the first World Meeting of Families was held in Rome Oct. 8-9, with the theme of “The Family: The Heart of the Civilization of Love.”
A Global Gathering
The Pope celebrated Mass Oct. 9 for the thousands who took part and told them, “Dear families gathered here, families from all over the world ... always know how to recognize your vocation — your great vocation in the Church and in the world. You received this vocation from Christ, who ‘sanctifies us’ and who ‘is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.’”
The success of the initial world meeting prompted the decision to make it a regular event in the life of the Church, much as World Youth Day — begun also by John Paul II, in 1985 — grew exponentially in scale and attendance. The second World Meeting was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1997 with the theme, “The Family: Gift and Commitment, Hope for Humanity.” In conjunction with the meeting, there was an international theological congress that used the occasion to issue “The Rio Declaration on the Family.” A bold vision of family life, the declaration listed traditional threats to the family, such as poverty and divorce, but remarkably prescient was the warning against “new totalitarian tendencies,” such as “a well-funded anti-family mentality and an anti-life ideology” and growing ideas of “‘gender’ whereby sexual identity is attributed to social and cultural factors.”
A Prophetic Witness
The prophetic quality of the World Meeting remained an essential element throughout its celebration again in Rome in 2000; Manila in 2003; Valencia, Spain, in 2006; Mexico City in 2009; Milan, Italy, in 2012; and Philadelphia in 2015.
The 2015 gathering was significant because it was the first held in the United States and took place just after the decision by the Supreme Court that redefined marriage in the United States to include people of the same sex. Pope Francis spoke directly to the witness of the family in today’s world. “We Christians, the Lord’s disciples, ask the families of the world to help us,” he said.
“How many of us are here at this celebration! This is itself something prophetic, a kind of miracle in today’s world, which is tired of inventing new divisions, new hurts, new disasters. Would that we could all be prophets! Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love to benefit our own families and all the families of the world, and thus overcome the scandal of a narrow, petty love, closed in on itself, impatient of others!”
The same event was blessed with two powerful patrons that took the gathering back to its roots: Sts. John Paul II and Gianna Beretta Molla. As Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said when he announced them as patrons, “Sts. John Paul II and Gianna had a deep and abiding commitment to strengthening the family and sustaining it with love.”
The assaults on the family about which the saintly pontiff and the “Rio Declaration” warned have all come to pass. St. John Paul understood the threats then to the family from the culture of death. He established the World Meeting of Families as part of his response.
As families gather in Ireland for the ninth meeting, the organizers and participants would do well to remember its origins as a resistance to the deconstruction of the family, especially the words of John Paul II in Rio de Janeiro in 1997. “The cause of the family,” he said, “confers dignity upon the world and liberates it in the authentic truth of the human being, of the mystery of life, the gift of God, and of man and woman, images of God. You must fight for this cause to ensure your happiness and the future of the human family.”
Matthew E. Bunson is a Register senior editor.
World Meeting of Families at a Glance
1994: Rome — “The Family: The Heart of the Civilization of Love”
1997: Rio de Janeiro — “The Family: Gift and Commitment, Hope of Humanity”
2000: Rome — “Children: Springtime of the Family and of the Church”
2003: Manila — “The Christian Family: Good News for the Third Millennium”
2006: Valencia, Spain — “Handing on the Faith in the Family”
2009: Mexico City — “The Family: Teacher of Human and Christian Values”
2012: Milan, Italy — “Family, Work and Celebration”
2015: Philadelphia — “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive”
2018: Dublin — “The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World”